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The Whitman Massacre: The History and Legacy of the Native American Attack on Missionaries that Started the Cayuse War

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At the start of the 1840s, the Oregon Country had no political boundaries or effective government. The only administrative organization in the territory was the Hudson’s Bay Company, which applied only to British subjects, and aside from natives, the region was populated by a handful of independent traders, hunters, and prospectors, as well as those employed in the various company depots.

The first to begin showing up in large numbers were missionaries. The native populations were by then diminished by disease and dispirited, which meant they were more receptive to missionary aid and the Christian message. Christianity, of course, was not entirely unknown among the indigenous populations, given that marriages between white men and Indian women created a hybrid of “folk” Christianity that was commonly observed among the Indians. The first wave of missionaries represented the American Methodists, arriving in or around 1834, followed a year or two later by a second series of arrivals, sponsored this time by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). The ABCFM was an ecumenical organization founded to promote the general outreach of the Presbyterian and Dutch Reform churches in the United States. Roman Catholics arrived around 1830, bringing missionaries mostly from Canada and Europe.

Perhaps the most famous missionary party of this era consisted of a Presbyterian missionary group including Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa, who established their mission on the confluence of the Walla Walla and Columbia Rivers. The Whitman Mission later became an important staging post on the Oregon Trail. The fortunes of the Whitman Mission, however, became something of an object lesson in race relations in the new territory, ultimately with very tragic results.

The mission was well funded, and its settlement, at least by the standards of native society, was lavish. Initially, the couple and their followers treated the neighboring Cayuse tribe with generosity, distributing material largess as well as medicine and rudimentary education. The relationship between the two parties, however, was complicated, and Marcus Whitman appeared to grow disenchanted with persistent demands for material goods made upon the mission. Eventually, he stopped providing goods, which sowed a certain amount of discontent among the Cayuse, and animosity took root. When an epidemic of measles swept through the community, killing hundreds of natives, they blamed the mission for poisoning them. In November 1847, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, along with 11 other missionaries, were massacred by a Cayuse war party.

That attack would have profound implications not only for the Cayuse and other native tribes of the region, but also for the future direction of the territory. The immediate aftermath brought conflicts known as the Cayuse Wars, which resulted in the banishment of the native peoples of the region to reservations and galvanized the federal government to act over the status of the Oregon Country.

In May 1848, the former mountain man Joseph Meek arrived in St. Louis after an overland journey from Oregon in the dead of winter, announcing himself as the “Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary from the Republic of Oregon to the Court of the United States.” In fact, Joseph Meek was a representative of the provisional government sent to plead for the establishment of U.S. “Territory” status for Oregon. The essential message that he carried on behalf of the provisional government was that if the United States had attended to its duties earlier, the Whitman Massacre and subsequent violence might never have happened. In time, far more resources would be pumped into the area, both in terms of material and soldiers, and the region would go on to form several new states.

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